406. (Christopher Marlowe)

T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Marlowe is essential:

Dido appears to be a hurried play, perhaps done to order with the Aeneid in front of him. But even here there is progress. The account of the sack of Troy is in this newer style of Marlowe’s, this style which secures its emphasis by always hesitating on the edge of caricature at the right moment:

            The Grecian soldiers, tir’d with ten years war,

            Began to cry, “Let us unto our ships,

            Troy is invincible, why stay we here?”

            By this, the camp was come unto the walls,

            And through the breach did march into the streets,

            Where, meeting with the rest, “Kill, kill!” they cried…

            And after him, his band of Myrmidons,

            With balls of wild-fire in their murdering paws…

            At last the soldier’s pulled her by the heels,

            And swung her howling in the empty air…

            We saw Cassandra sprawling in the streets…

This is not Virgil or Shakespeare; it is pure Marlowe.

It achieves its tincture of caricature by investing, as caricature does, the human form of action with a bestial abruptness and ferocity. And though it is not right to call this “progress” as if it is new to Marlowe (the play was likely roughly contemporary to Tamburlaine and probably preceded Faustus), the word progress rightly suggests a new and distinct direction in English poetry—one that, not coincidentally, Eliot himself grasped in his Sweeney poems. At the end of the essay, Eliot cagily, coyly says the effect is “not unlike caricature,” and one reason it cannot be caricature is because it exists alongside, and within, the heroic, and not the mock-heroic; and it is this other mode of heroic verse that I think is equally distinct, but more obvious and more frequently celebrated in Marlowe’s verse, dominant in Tamburlaine, but present also in Faustus. There, Marlowe’s achievement depends on not only balancing, but blending the two modes, so that this near-caricature of the animal serves to register the gravity that holds back Marlowe’s heroic from its tendency towards self-willed sublimation of the self, an appetite that is indulged to dissolve distances and surmount limits of selfhood, be they psychological, physical, or spiritual. Marlowe’s is the appetite that sublimates the self in its fulfillment, and that is, as a consequence, nearly allied to the death-drive (Tamburlaine’s victorious life is inseparable from his will to face death; Faustus asks for twenty-four years, which is a good span of time, but decidedly finite). The blending of modes is apparent in the celebrated passages, such as Faustus’ final soliloquy:

Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d
Unto some brutish beast! all beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.
Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.

[The clock strikes twelve.]

O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!

[Thunder and lightning.]

O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!

But Faustus is yearning rather than realizing, and in the final lines of the speech, the trace of caricature returns (in “I’ll burn my books”). Because Faustus aspires to dissolution but falls into caricature, he can be said to reveal the crucial relation of the two, a relation that depends on the bounds and experience of selfhood; in the sublime, appetite is unbounded, capable of dissolving all experience, whereas in the mode of caricature, we find the frenzied and terrible consequence of finite, vulnerable, precarious, straitened human action (felt chillingly, grotesquely in “We saw Cassandra sprawling in the streets). Neither is especially hospitable to drama, since the former (the sublime) promises to transcend circumstance, exigency, and the need for coordinated plotting, and the latter (the caricature) sputters without arc. In the latter, we find touches like “sprawling,” or the quickened rhythm of  “where, meeting with the rest, ‘kill! kill’! they cried,” or the macabre, excruciating whimsy (of style and subject alike) of “swung her howling in the empty air”; it depends on speed, quick brushstrokes; Goya’s “Disasters of War” is its descendent. In the unalloyed sublime of Tamburlaine (about which more soon), we find the mixture of abstraction and sensual concretion, not muddled, but each transfigured by the other, whereas Faustus’ agony and damnation is a hell that prevents the heavenly dissolution. He is most in the thrall of the bestial caricature when he decrees, “all beasts are happy,” grasping at a philosophical straw that shows how deep the mud about him lies; he does not fail to misunderstand theological doctrine only, but fails to appreciate the grace that is the grace of a sublime imagination that depends upon human faculties properly exercised; he fails to be sufficiently (what he could not call, but we might) Romantic, fails because he did not lose himself in his own appetite,  but turned to magic, to a devil, rather than to his own spirit, and so is left with, and damned within, the hell of an soul incapable of self-sublimation. The great line of the play belongs to Mephistopheles: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Unlike Milton’s Satan whose echo of the line is despairing and self-dramatic, Mephistopheles’ utterance wreaks of flirtatious cunning, a rhetoric that plays upon Faustus, that insinuates itself into his wormy brain. Milton’s Satan speaks the line as a discovery; Mephistopheles, as a self-evident truth, a fact that will tempt Faustus into believing that a truth already self-evident must be endurable. But what Faustus does not hear, and what Mephistopheles has told him obliquely, is that unlike Satan, whose hell is solitary, the hell of Mephistopheles is one of utter dependency, a self in thrall to another. Just before the line, in response to Faustus’ question, “And what are you that live with Lucifer,” he responds:

Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,

Conspired against our God with Lucifer,

And are forever damned with Lucifer.

The repeated “with Lucifer” signals both proud allegiance and resentful, now involuntary, servitude; he stands by and he is bound to; in either case, though it amounts to a failure to submit oneself to oneself, and so to transcend the self in something greater. Faustus’ deal with the devil is just such a failure, a squandering of the self, a shirking from individual glory, that leaves him able to imagine only the squalid freedom of an animal, whose instinct and appetite, though similar to that of humans, does not transcend; the dissolution of the beast is a caricature of the glorious dissolution that would be available to him either (if we are reading it one way) through God’s grace or else (if we read it another) through a heroic self-exertion. Tamburlaine’s sublime rhetoric offers us a vision of the latter:

Black is the beauty of the brightest day;
The golden ball of heaven’s eternal fire,
That danc’d with glory on the silver waves,
Now wants the fuel that inflam’d his beams;
And all with faintness, and for foul disgrace,
He binds his temples with a frowning cloud,
Ready to darken earth with endless night.
Zenocrate, that gave him light and life,
Whose eyes shot fire from their ivory brows,
And temper’d every soul with lively heat,
Now by the malice of the angry skies,
Whose jealousy admits no second mate,
Draws in the comfort of her latest breath,
All dazzled with the hellish mists of death.

This is Marlowe that Tennyson called “morning star” to the sun of Shakespeare, and the power of these lines, and other lines in Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2, involves a sensualized abstraction that Shelley rediscovers and that, in Tennyson, where the desire to dissolve the self that desires is overwhelming, comes nearest to Marlowe:

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes

A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.

Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals

From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,

And bosom beating with a heart renew’d.

Thy cheek begins to redden thro’ the gloom,

Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,

Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team

Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,

And shake the darkness from their loosen’d manes,

And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.

When in Tennyson the light flickers into chiaroscuro and streaks of twilight, world and self are released from their substantial and confining frames; in Marlowe, it is the solid flesh and ponderous mass of things that blazes into abstraction, so that when we read “danc’d with glory on the silver waves,” it is not only “danced gloriously,” but in the presence of glory itself; and when it is said that Zenocrate “temper’d every soul with lively heat,” “soul” does not mean merely person or individual, but something immaterial; and “All dazzled with the hellish mists of death” refers not only to the dimming of the world accompanying dying, but to death as an entity; “All dazzled” attaches at once to “breath” and the “skies,” the latter drawing comfort from the breath, her gasp lost in their immensity, but also in that final exhalation, becoming like light, capable of dazzling the skies, and yielding, in expiring, the mists of death, unseen, beyond the senses, but acting on sky itself; and also, her breath is itself dazzled with the mists of hellish death, hellish suggesting sin, suggesting damnation, suggesting also the fire shot from her “ivory brows,” now issuing in mists; she exhales the breath and the sky draws it in, drawing in also, terribly, a comfort from her dying, since she was a rival to its glory, but also, perhaps, a comfort that is the solace of knowing her and knowing her to be absorbed into its insubstantial void. The death of Zenocrate is less her own than it is the apotheosis of Tamburlaine’s language and self: at this moment, his appetite is focused into utterance, his desire for power is revealed as the power of desire to transform the self that looks beyond; in her imminent absence, his language gains presence and he nearly loses himself.

When Tamburlaine is most himself, most bounded and contained in himsel, his language is so sublime as to overcome the circumstance of his human vulnerability; we might expect such language to be mere bombast and preposterous, and though it is bombast, relentlessly, it is not, somehow preposterous:

Your fearful minds are thick and misty, then,

For there sits Death, there sits imperious Death,

Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.

But I am pleased you shall not see him there;

He is now seated on my horseman’s spears,

And on their points his fleshless body feeds.

Techelles, straight go charge a few of them

To charge these dames, and show my servant Death

Sitting in scarlet on their armed spears.

In the world of the play, it is not preposterous because Tamburlaine is repeatedly victorious; he cannot be ridiculed. But for the reader (not even the audience), the matter stands differently: the words are not silly because they do not purport to play with figures, dally with rhetoric, or perform a part. Tamburlaine is unlike Shakespeare’s heroes because he does not, despite the excesses of his language, dramatize himself: he self-aggrandizes instead and, what is more to the point, in self-aggrandizing, he shifts his attention and language away from himself and his person towards the expanse of place and space he could be said to occupy. His language serves to extend the arena of action, and to contain within that arena, more than we would have thought possible. Before he conquers, he re-imagines and rhetorically reconfigures the world he would devour. He is made great by making the world greater; the fact that he can achieve such a vantage point, and mastery, over the world, is proof of his power. But it is a power that entails the loss not only of what others possess, but of the self that not only imposes but is imposed by limits; Faustus, for his folly, at least retains the limits that preserve, not yet standing at the center of a circle without defined circumference that is the hell of Mephistopheles.

 Tamburlaine, when he proclaims his significance most violently renders himself an insignificant element in the utterance: the first person does not serve as an anchor or point of return, so much as it left behind by the fantasy it occasions:

The God of war resignes his roume to me,
Meaning to make me Generall of the world,
Jove viewing me in armes, lookes pale and wan,
Fearing my power should pull him from his throne.
Where ere I come the fatall sisters sweat,
And griesly death, by running to and fro,
To doo their ceassles homag to my sword:
And here in Affrick where it seldom raines,
Since I arriv’d with my triumphant hoste,
Have swelling cloudes drawen from wide gasping woundes,
Bene oft resolv’d in bloody purple showers,
A meteor that might terrify the earth,
And make it quake at every drop it drinks:
Millions of soules sit on the bankes of Styx,
Waiting the back returne of Charons boat,
Hell and Elisian swarme with ghosts of men,
That I have sent from sundry foughten fields,
To spread my fame through hell and up to heaven:
And see my Lord, a sight of strange import,
Emperours and kings lie breathlesse at my feet.
The Turk and his great Emperesse as it seems,
Left to themselves while we were at the fight,
Have desperatly dispatcht their slavish lives

The ”I” carries less weight than any other image; it is not eclipsed by the rest but instead is revealed, through all that it absorbs, to be only a cypher that can and must absorb; its appetite declares its vacancy, and rather than digest, it is absorbed and digested by all that it conquers, even as it is absorbed and digested by the language. If Marlowe hesitates on the verge of caricature in Dido and Faustus, he hesitates here on the verge of reverie, and a fancy that ecstatically transports. Marlowe’s novelty lay not in the hesitancy on the verge of caricature alone, but in a poetry that could accommodate, and establish the relation between, the ecstatic and the ridiculous, the dissolution of self and the cramped contortion of self, the self in thrall to the instinct to kick back at the solidity of the world and the self consumed within the hunger for all of experience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s